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Catholic Diocese of Sacramento lawyer goes after coach's credibility in sex-hazing scandal

Christopher Cerbone filed suit over his firing from St. Patrick-St. Vincent after reporting hazing.
Christopher Cerbone filed suit over his firing from St. Patrick-St. Vincent after reporting hazing.

Emails written by a high school football coach who was fired amid a sexual hazing scandal suggested he knew he was about to be terminated even before he reported the episode to his bosses, according to the messages shown Monday in Sacramento Superior Court.

“The (athletic director) told me yesterday that she does not feel that I am the right fit for the head coach job at this school, and is going to ask the principal ... to fire me today,” the coach, Christopher Cerbone, wrote in a Dec. 19, 2012, email to the father of one of his players – more than a month before he actually was fired on Jan. 25, 2013, from his job at St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School of Vallejo.

Last week, Cerbone testified in his wrongful termination trial he was “blown away” when officials from the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento told him they were getting rid of him.

Cerbone, who is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, maintained in his lawsuit that he was fired in retaliation for reporting details of the hazing scandal to school officials. The introduction of the emails figures to allow the attorney for the diocese, Tom Johnson, to attack Cerbone’s credibility in his closing argument.

St. Patrick-St. Vincent finished with a 1-8 record in 2012, Cerbone’s first year as head coach. He had been hired barely a month before preseason drills got underway, and the emails and the coach’s testimony detailed a program that appeared to be stricken by disunity between the coach and his older players – five of whom were ultimately expelled from school for exposing their private parts in a hazing ritual directed at underclassmen.

“This season has been a mess,” Cerbone wrote in the Dec. 19 email to the player’s father, “with me just getting the job at the end of July, the varsity players never really responded to me.

“So when I took over, I was handed a bunch of disgruntled, unhappy whiny crybaby’s (sic).”

Johnson suggested in his cross-examination of Cerbone that athletic director Tamra Smith informed the coach two days before the Dec. 19 email that he was going to be fired. Cerbone denied he was in line for termination. He said he and Smith “had a conversation about how we were going to move forward,” possibly by her moving him down to an assistant in charge of strength and conditioning and head coach of the junior varsity program.

Cerbone called his emails written after his conversation with Smith “my absolute overreaction to what she told me, that I’d be a better assistant coach than a head coach.”

He insisted that he told the truth when he testified last week that he was “blown away” by his firing.

“I stand by what I said,” he told the jury, under questioning from Johnson.

“You knew your job was over,” Johnson countered.

“Negative,” Cerbone replied.

The timing of the Dec. 19, 2012, email has taken on added significance: It is the same date Cerbone said he discovered the hazing.

He said he found out about it during a conversation with younger players who told him they were getting “punked” by the seniors.

Johnson asked Cerbone if the coach initiated the conversation in the context of telling the kids he wasn’t coming back as coach.

“Absolutely incorrect,” Cerbone replied.

It was “purely coincidental,” Cerbone testified, that he learned of the hazing in the same time frame as the possible job change.

Cerbone insisted he was not responsible for the hazing that school officials said took place on the football field before practice began. School let out at 2:50 p.m. and practice did not begin until 3:30. Cerbone claims he remained in the locker room for those 40 minutes to get the players ready for practice.

“Do you bear any responsibility?” Johnson asked.

“No, I do not,” Cerbone testified.

When Johnson suggested it was Cerbone’s program, the coach said, “It was the school’s program. It didn’t belong to me.”

Johnson implied the previous St. Patrick-St. Vincent coach ran a chapel program before practice that kept the players occupied. Cerbone said he did not feel “comfortable” running what was “a religious service” and left it up to the players whether to continue the program.

“They disbanded the chapel, not me,” Cerbone testified.

The St. Patrick-St. Vincent job was Cerbone’s 13th teaching position in almost as many years. Once he got his teaching degree from New Mexico State University following a five-year law enforcement career with the New York State Police, Cerbone testified, he had jobs in the South Bronx; Hastings, N.Y.; Carson; Redondo Beach; North Hollywood; Acton; Rosamond; Bishop; Natomas High School in Sacramento; San Rafael; Saratoga; and the public school district in Vallejo.

The trial continues Tuesday for print in front of Judge David W. Abbott. It is expected to run at least through the rest of the week.

Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.

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